Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: We’re looking at favorite episodes from web and streaming series.
Flash animation was one of the greatest things to happen to the internet. The ability to produce simple, short cartoons and post them online was a godsend during a time when most people still had connections that could barely handle downloading a few songs an hour. In the early 2000s, it was rare to be able to watch a video without loading the entire thing in advance; otherwise, that damn spinning ball would hit your eyes every couple of seconds. Brief animated videos were speedy and fun sources of entertainment—and more importantly, they didn’t require anything more than a dial-up modem.
Even among the wide-ranging web cartoons of the time, Strindberg & Helium caught on(line) like wildfire. The series centered around an unlikely friendship: on one hand there was an Edward Gorey-like rendering of Swedish playwright, poet, essayist, and novelist August Strindberg, famous for intensely serious works of art and morbidly depressed in each installment. On the other hand, there was Helium, a pink floating balloon, whose entire existence consists of cheerfully repeating the most gloomy words and phrases uttered by Strindberg, drawing out the vowels until the word’s meaning was almost reversed from its original definition. Helium floated the gloom right out of the language. Not since Turner & Hooch had there been such a night-and-day pairing.
That summation explains everything you need to know about the webseries, and yet it can’t begin to capture the inexplicable ebullience of the whole endeavor. There’s something so absurdly joyful about seeing a mordantly unhappy chronicler of mankind’s ills forced to hear his words aped by a chipper inflated ball—especially one who loves him so dearly. (Every episode begins with Helium planting an affectionate kiss squarely on the cheek of his companion.) Whether he’s ruminating on the agony of man’s existence, the futility of action, or suffering through a day at the beach, all of Strindberg’s choicest verbiage is reflected back at him through the funhouse mirror of his little animated buddy. The episodes were barely a minute long, but much like Strindberg’s depression, they had an outsize impact.
Speaking of the transience of humankind’s existence, Strindberg & Helium burned brightly before flaring out enormously quickly. Only five episodes of the series were ever produced, doomed to forever stoke the fires of hope in those who found themselves entranced by the duo. The scripts and voices were created by Erin Bradley and James Bewley, two members of San Francisco-based comedy troupe Killing My Lobster, with the vignettes directed and animated by artist Eun-Ha Paek, who gave them a weird and distinctive look. The three quickly became wrapped up in other projects, and the further adventures of Strindberg and Helium evaporated like so much somber poetry on the night air—or maybe the gassy deflating of a balloon.
“Strindberg and Helium At Home With The Kids” delivers possibly the most concentrated version of this delightful elixir. In less than 60 seconds, it demonstrates Strindberg’s inescapable depression, Helium’s effervescent optimism, and the unfeeling world that surrounds them. By the time Helium utters the irrepressibly happy “I’m dead, too,” you’ll want to sign up for an eternity of bubbly reinforcement.
Yet the mismatched buddies live on, in more than just the hearts of millions of people who became enamored of their adventures for a fleeting moment in 2002. A Twitter account from the point of view of both characters is still going strong, meaning you’re never more than a click away from a sprightly balloon exclaiming, “Miseryyyyy!”
Availability: Strindberg & Helium can be streamed online at strindbergandhelium.com.